Autobiography of a Yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi

by Paramahansa Yogananda
reprint of the original Philosophical Library 1946 edition; Crystal Clarity Publications; paper, 481 pages.

The Autobiography a Yogi is one of the greatest classics of spiritual literature published in the Western world. It is the life story of Paramahansa Yogananda, the great yogi and saint who came from India to the United States in 1920, having been directed by his teacher to bring Yoga to the West. He became the central figure promoting yogic spirituality in this country for more than thirty years until his death in 1952. The book has changed the lives of thousands of people.

Here we have a special reprint of the original edition first published in 1946. Yogananda himself made a few minor changes in 1951, and Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), the organization established by him, was responsible for subsequent editions. SRF made a number of changes through the years, including not only many footnotes. but some notable deletions and additions as well.

The present reprint has been done under the auspices of Ananda, a group of spiritual communities organized under the inspiration of Sri Kriyananda, one of Yogananda's chief disciples and former head monk and vice-president of SRF, who disassociated from that organization in 1962.

The question at hand is why the reader should purchase this more expensive version of the first edition when later editions are readily available at a lower price . The difference is more one of ton e rather than substance. However, in the original edition one feels more in contact with Yogananda himself. In later editions we see Yogananda through the eyes of SRF; the organization becomes a medium between the reader and the yogi by the addition of more than a hundred references to the organization.

Yogananda created SRF, and the organization has done enormous benefit by continuing the teachings by making available his books, recordings, and lessons. Yet organizations have their limitations, and great teachers and great teachings transcend all organizations.

This is not to say that SRF was wrong for institutionalizing Yogananda and his teaching. Such organizations become necessary in the modern world. Personal transmissions, as in the old guru-disciple system of earlier days, have of necessity been replaced largely by tapes, videos, books, and correspondence courses. The advantage of an organization like SRF is that it can project t the teaching to help fill the spiritual needs of many more people. The disadvantage is that the teaching so transmitted tends to become depersonalized and frozen in time. The institution , instead of simply disseminating the teaching, begins to assert owners hip over it, and may itself replace the teacher. While there is danger in a guru becoming an institution, there is even greater danger in an institution becoming a guru.

In its more recent editions, SRF appears to make a special claim to be the sole representative of Yogananda's teaching. But Yogananda had many disciples, not all of whom were part of or remained with SRF. Moreover, Yogananda's gurus themselves had many other disciples who developed their work in various directions, and some of whom came to the West and taught Kriya Yoga along different lines. Yogananda, in other word s, was part of a greater lineage with many branches in India and the West. Kriya Yoga, the technique that Yogananda taught, has many different teachers and techniques, and it is impossible to divide it from the rest of the yoga tradition. He did not invent the teachings , though he certainly added his flavor to them and made them accessible to the Western mind.

The Hindu yoga tradition is notably anarchic in its structure. It has no central organization, no pope or archbishop, no Rome or Mecca, and certainly no Bible or Koran that all students must memorize or literally believe in. It is remarkably non-institutional , and places individual direct experience above outer forms , rules, ritual , or dogma. In personal relationship with the guru, each disciple is treated differently, and when the disciples go off to do their own practice or start their own center, they are not beholden to the successors of the guru once the guru passes away, nor to any organization created in the guru's name. Disciples may not even require the approval of the guru. For example, some great teachers like Ramana Maharshi had no formal disciples and anyone can claim to be their disciples. Yoga centers, unlike churches, do not require loyalty to an organization. Moreover, the teaching is more important than the personality of the guru . It is this sense of freedom and diversity in the yogic approach that comes out more clearly in the original edition of Autobiography of a Yogi. Examples of the differences between the original edition and the 1981 SRF edition: 

Original edition: "The actual technique (of Kriya Yoga) must be learn ed from a Kriyaban or Kriya Yogi; here a broad reference must suffice."

1981 SRF edition: "The actual technique (of Kriya Yoga) must be learned from an authorized Kriyaban or Kriya Yogi of Self- Realization Fellowship (Yogoda Satsangha Society of India). Here a broad reference must suffice." 

What originally was a broad reference by Yogananda to any Kriya Yogi was narrowed to refer to a member of one organization. This tends to cast doubt upon other Kriya Yogis who do not belong to SRF. Westerners, trained in religious orthodoxy, may take such reference more seriously than Hindus, who are accustomed to every sort of teacher, practice, and center. Such statements contain an implicit criticism of the very diversity that surrounded Yogananda and that is generally part of the yoga tradition.

Yogananda himself gave initiation rather freely, a point that later editions of the book wish to forget: 

Original edition: "Tens of thousands of Americans received Yoga initiation ."

1981 SRF edition: "During the decade of 1920-1930 my yoga classes were attended by tens of thousands of Americans."

Yogananda may have started SRF, but it does not appear that he intended his teaching to be limited to one group. In this regard, references to spiritual communities - an important idea for Yogananda – have been taken out of the SRF edit ion. One example: "In these beautiful surroundings I have started a miniature world colony. Brotherhood is an ideal better understood by example than precept! A small harmonious group here may inspire other ideal communities over the earth."

Some other changes since the original edition appear to limit the connections between Yogananda's teaching and the rest of the tradition he came from. A reference to Ayurveda, for example, was taken out. Such changes, perhaps made with good intentions, nevertheless encourage conformity to a group rather than diversity.

Yogananda left not only SRF but a number of independent disciples, several of whom have become well known in their own right and who carry on the teaching along different lines. These teachers, who tend to be forgotten under the shadow of SRF, include Kriyananda, Roy Eugene Davis, Shelly Trimmer, Norm Paulsen, and Swami Premananda, to name a few.

Lahiri Mahasaya, Yogananda's guru's guru and the main proponent of Kriya Yoga in India, had many thousands of disciples in India. Babaji also is a well known Himalayan yogi in this broad tradition.

I think it is important to appreciate the diversity of the tradition, and for this reason recommend taking a look at the original edition. Yogananda wanted to bring the liberating practices of yoga to this country, not to create another church.


Winter 1994